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February 1, 2023IM -
You might be forgiven for not recognizing the name of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) staple Benjamin Wright, but you will almost certainly have heard his work. With a career spanning 60 years as a music director, arranger, songwriter, and producer, he has a staggering resumé of nearly 250 songs to his credit, either as writer or arranger, and that number continues to grow. The roster of big names he has worked with in the music industry is equally jaw-dropping.
Photos by Matt Sayles
One of the biggest of those names surprised Wright with a phone call out of the blue: legendary music industry veteran Quincy Jones, also of Local 47. “It was 1979. The phone rang, he introduced himself, and I said wait, Quincy who?” says Wright with a boisterous laugh, first assuming the call was a prank. “I was just making a name for myself with music arranging, but I still had no idea how someone like Quincy Jones would even know me.”
Jones told Wright he was producing a record for Michael Jackson and gave him an address in Bel Air. “Now, I’m a country boy from Greenville, Mississippi,” says Wright. “When I first came to LA in 1975, I enrolled in the UCLA film school. I knew where Bel Air was because it’s right in front of UCLA.”
Jones immediately started talking about Jackson. “I was pretty nervous,” recalls Wright. “He gave me a song to arrange, and gave me 30 days to write. Twenty-eight days out, I had not put a single note on paper.”
This was before the days of computers. “Everything was written out by hand,” he says. Two days before the session, desperate for inspiration, Wright says he turned to prayer—something that has been a constant in his life since his days of being brought up in the church. “I turned the task over to a higher power, went into another space, and met the deadline,” he says.
At the studio for the recording sessions, Wright passed out the music, and everyone got down to work. “I was watching Quincy through the glass, and he seemed pleased. We finished the take, and it was a home run. He was so happy he gave me another song,” says Wright.
That first song was “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” which won a Grammy Award. The second song was “Rock with You.” Both appeared on Jackson’s breakout solo album Off The Wall. “It seemed like after I finished that second one, Quincy was doubly happy, and I felt my stock going up!” says Wright.
It was indeed a big step for a hard-working young musician, a drum major in his school band who started his music career while still high school-aged, embarking on his first major tour as pianist and backup singer with rhythm and blues icon Ted Taylor. That was a development Wright’s churchgoing parents were not completely thrilled with.
“My dad was a builder and carpenter. That’s all I knew, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was always about music,” says Wright, whose parents supported his choice, even though they didn’t speak the language. “In the end, it was cool because I was in Sunday school and I stayed in the church, so they couldn’t complain about me doing music.”
Nevertheless, when Wright got that first road gig at 16, his dad intervened. “He made Ted Taylor, who was a big star back then, come talk to him,” says Wright. “He asked Ted what would happen when I wasn’t performing. Ted reassured my dad that the road manager would look out for me. And sure enough, after gigs, the whole band and crew made sure I got into bed. I’m very grateful for that now. I never drank, smoked, or did drugs. Never had any bad habits. I really think that saved me.”
Following service in the US Air Force, Wright toured the country’s hotel circuit as a keyboard player—but he really wanted to orchestrate and arrange. In 1969, he moved to Chicago, where he joined Pieces of Peace, one of the city’s top session bands, which regularly recorded music for a roster of well-known Chicago acts. That opened a wealth of doors for Wright, including an opportunity to attend the Chicago Conservatory of Music and, importantly, work honing his skills as a copyist for local artists, including soul legend Donny Hathaway.
“Chicago for me was all about learning, learning, learning,” Wright recalls. “When Donny’s record company found out he could sing, everything suddenly changed. He moved to New York, and all his clients suddenly became my clients. I became so busy in Chicago with copying and arranging that my charts started improving, and the Los Angeles industry started to get to know me.”
Indeed, Wright found himself having to travel to LA frequently to do arranging. “I didn’t want to live there, but I kept getting assignments. Remember, we were still doing all of this by hand, no email. Eventually, I decided I needed to move there,” he says.
After arriving in LA in 1975, Wright began to explore producing, adding it to his arsenal of skills. Work began to accelerate, and he found himself very busy, very quickly. He worked as the music director and producer for The Temptations and also wrote several songs on their 1976 album The Temptations Do The Temptations. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, he joined Gladys Knight as her music director, a job he would hold for the next 30 years.
Despite his successes, he never forgot his roots. “I still have nieces and nephews in Mississippi, and I had an older sister who passed last year. She had stepped forward after my mom died. She became my mother.” When Wright came back broke from touring Europe, he says, she lent him money, despite having eight kids of her own. “She lent me 300 bucks. When my career started taking off, I paid her back 10,000 bucks, and eventually sent two of her kids to college,” he says.
The same year of the award for his work on Michael Jackson’s album—1979, the year of the phone call from Quincy Jones—Wright would take home another Grammy Award for his arrangement of “Boogie Wonderland,” the iconic single by Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the best-selling bands of all time. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect blend of horns and strings than one hears on this chart—but, if the process for determining the ideal sound for a particular song can seem mystical from the outside, Wright quickly demystifies it.
“I listen to the song, and then I go to my piano and I start writing,” he says simply. “That’s really all there is to it.” Though these days, he adds, he does have the help of computers. “And here’s a bold statement: I think I was one of the first guys in LA to embrace computers for writing and arranging. They have certainly made life a lot easier for all of us.”
His collaborations with notable artists have continued, far too numerous to cover here, with Wright contributing award-winning material and production for artists as disparate as OutKast, DeBarge, Destiny’s Child, Tony Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Chaka Kahn, and Local 47 member Justin Timberlake’s solo debut, which was the source of yet another Grammy (2004) for Best Pop Vocal Album. He also conducted two Nobel Peace Prize concerts in Oslo, Norway, and has continued his relationship with Quincy Jones, who he still thinks of fondly.
“Back in the day, when I first met him, I was pretty scared,” he remembers. “But Quincy is such a fun person. I would get a call from him every morning and I’d think, what on earth do I talk about with someone big like him? He’d mention names like Sinatra, and all these other people who I didn’t know. But he looked on me as his buddy, and he still does even today.”
An important part of learning, says Wright, is that Jones never gave him clues about how to do anything. “He just gave me his confidence, and he treated me like an equal from the get-go. My charts just naturally started getting better.”
Long list of accomplishments aside, Wright is quick to say his crowning achievement is his family and his children. “My wife Deborah is the CEO,” he laughs. “We have 900 kids—including some who aren’t really our kids, but they still are.” (In reality, the Wrights have 10 children—including some who aren’t really their kids, but still are.) Wright names Deborah as the family disciplinarian. “She keeps me in line. She’s also a minister. God couldn’t have been better to me.”
Wright joined the AFM in 1965. “That’s a long time to be in the union,” he says, “and I might have learned a thing or two. That’s the kind of guy I am, I keep on top of stuff. These days, if there’s a problem with a recording, I’ll tell the union what’s best to do.”
He believes that younger people coming into leadership positions in the AFM bring much-needed fresh ideas. “That said,” he adds, “it’s a fact that most don’t have the background that I do in terms of dealing with the corporate part of the music industry. The younger AFM officers are learning, and I have the knowledge and the experience. They definitely know me at Local 47.”
In his late 70s, Wright continues to rack up both recognition and awards for his work. In 2018, he saw the launch of Experience Benjamin Wright, bringing his music to a live audience in front of an orchestra. The first show featured the Philly Pops Orchestra and Bubba Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Then, in 2021, Wright traveled back to his home state to be honored with the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He continues working in the studio with no signs of stopping. “I’m at an age now where I can get the union pension,” he chuckles. “But I’ll never retire. I’m still heavily in the game and I’ll keep doing what I do.”